The Aisle Steat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Kids Are All Right
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore deal with love and family in The Kids Are All Right.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have been in a committed relationship for about twenty years. They have two teenage children, Joni (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who were conceived via artificial insemination. While their love for each other is strong, their relationship is showing some cracks. Nic is a bit controlling, with a tendency to drink a little more than she should. Jules is somewhat unsettled, having tried multiple different careers in search of something that satisfies her. One minute, the two of them can be cheerily making love while watching gay porn, and the next minute they can be fighting viciously.

The Kids Are All Right is the story of Jules and Nic and Joni and Laser, but also of Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Paul is the anonymous sperm donor who Joni and Laser track down and decide to make contact with. It happens at Laser's insistence; surrounded by women, he feels adrift, and spends his days experimenting with drugs and getting into trouble with his bad-egg best friend. It turns out that he and Joni generally like Paul, and so does Jules once she gets over the shock of the fact that the kids have found him. Nic is far less enamored, perceiving him as a threat to the sanctity of her family. There is a big chunk of the plot that I'm going to leave out so as not to drop any spoilers. What counts is that the film examines the influence Paul's presence has on the family, in ways both good and bad.

I love movies like this, especially in the summer. After a steady diet of superheroes, over-the-top action scenes, and seemingly endless special effects, it's nice to see a movie that's just about people and how they interact with one another. Director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art) allows us the time to get to know these characters so that they become fully developed in our minds. She co-wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, and what's most special about it is that each of the characters has shades of gray. All of them have moments where we like them, as well as moments where we dislike what they do. For me, this was the single most compelling aspect of The Kids Are All Right. Because these are relatable, flawed human beings stuck in a situation for which there is no rulebook, it's easy to become absorbed watching them work their way through it.

As you'd expect given this cast, the performances are very good. Ruffalo brings a loose, tentative quality to Paul, who never had a family but kind of wants one. His hesitancy to step wrongly is just barely contained by his enthusiasm to know Joni and Laser. There's a poignant scene in which Laser asks Paul about his decision to become a sperm donor, only to get a slightly different answer than he expected. Ruffalo makes the guy's motivations feel real. Julianne Moore delivers too, showing how Jules' need for attention/approval impacts her relationship with Nic and guides many of her choices. The standout, though, is Annette Bening, who brings just the right amount of fierceness to Nic. The character is a mama bear, determined to protect her family from outside forces, even as her own imperfections threaten it from within. Played incorrectly, Nic could come off as just a bitch, yet Bening allows us to see how her motivations for being so protective spring from a place of love. I'll be floored if the actress doesn't snag an Oscar nomination for the role.

The Kids Are All Right has a lesbian couple at its center, plus an outside male who comes in trying to take on a parental role, but I think it would be a mistake to assign a larger political meaning to the film, which some folks are very likely to do. Cholodenko seems to be crafting a movie simply about the need to make decisions that are best for one's family. That Kids depicts a loving, devoted relationship between two members of the same gender is just an added benefit. We see this kind of thing so rarely in movies (especially ones with big stars) that it's intrinsically endearing. But in the end, the director is most interested in universal family dynamics, especially during a time of change. The title works on two levels: Joni and Laser are right about having access to information about their biological father, but they are also alright in coping with whatever decisions their mothers ultimately make for their benefit.

I laughed frequently at the observational humor in the movie. The jokes are never forced, but instead spring naturally from characters and situations. I also felt deeply touched by the things these characters go through and learn. The Kids Are All Right belongs in the same class as indies like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno - films that manage to combine comedy and sincerity. They are all little slices of life. A few things here might have been expanded on just a tiny bit more (again, no spoilers), but nothing major - just a couple scenes it would have been interesting to see go on longer. All in all, I really enjoyed being dropped into this family's world for two hours. The Kids Are All Right is one of my favorite movies so far in 2010.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Kids Are All Right is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.